Chaotic Wombs May Birth Wrong-way Planets

Turbulent somethings lead to something. Image Credit: Vob

We’ve heard it time and time again. When it comes to new exoplanet findings, our conventional wisdom never holds. So the surprise that a batch of extrasolar planets are moving retrograde, orbiting in directions opposite to the way their stars are spinning, shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Then again, maybe it should. These discoveries turned the long-standing view of how planets form on its head. Now Eduard Vorobyov at the University of Vienna and colleagues argue that chaotic conditions in the planetary system’s gaseous wombs may be to blame.

Theorists have long assumed that stars and their planetary companions assemble from spinning disks of gas and dust. This causes the star to spin in one direction, while its planetary companions follow suit. “In some fundamental sense, the cloud carries a ‘genetic code’ that obligates the formation of corotating stars and planets,” Vorobyov told Universe Today.

So how do these wrong-way exoplanets get out of whack? Some theorists have postulated that the gravitational tugs from neighbors might change their direction of rotation. But this is pretty difficult for massive planets.

So Vorobyov and his colleagues took a second look at the initial clouds in which stars and their corotating planets form. Initially, astronomers thought that clouds evolve in relative isolation. Recent simulations, however, suggest that “clouds form within a turbulent environment and move like bees in a hive from one place to another,” said Vorobyov.

So a moving cloud might end up in an environment that’s quite different from the one it had at birth. It could even find itself surrounded by gas that’s swirling opposite to its spin.

Vorobyov and colleagues ran simulations that place clouds into environments with various characteristics. Sure enough when a gas cloud is surrounded by gas that’s swirling in the opposite direction, the inner disk continues to rotate in the same direction of the star, but the outer disk flips and starts to rotate in the opposite direction.

Over time, grains glom together in both disks until they ultimately form planets. Any inner planets will rotate with the star and any outer planets will rotate opposite the star.

ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri
ALMA image of the protoplanetary disc around HL Tauri. Image Credit: ALMA / ESO / NOAJ / NRAO / NSF

But there are a few interesting byproducts. The first is that there’s a gap between the two counter-rotating disks. So whenever we see gaps in protoplanetary disks (like the one ALMA spotted a few weeks ago), these gaps might not be the result of a forming planet, but instead a null space between two counter-rotating disks.

The second is that the outer disk produces shock waves, which can trigger early planet formation. “The idea that planets would naturally form in the first very short (100,000 to 400,000 years) lifetime of the protostar would be profound, even if some of the planets were later destroyed,” expert Joel Green from the University of Texas told Universe Today.

This stands in contrast to the idea that planets collect their mass from collisions. It’s a process that astronomers think takes millions of years. But Green isn’t completely convinced by the simulations just yet as there seems to be no physical reason for the outer disks to end up counter rotating.

It all really comes down to the question of nature vs. nurture. “In some philosophical sense, the nurture (external environment) may completely change the nature of planet-forming disks,” said Vorobyov.

The results will be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and are available online.